What you see here is a fighting knight
I am sitting at my desk, going over the letters again. Those first letters, dealing with the Marquess of Carabas, were written after Nico had lived for many months with the family Kramer in Leeuwarden. Between Christmas 1942 and May 1943 quite a few letters must have been written, but there is no trace of them. Probably mother was afraid to hold on to them. After all, it was a dangerous time. Had my parents been arrested, those letters might have endangered my life too.
I don’t recall much about the trip to Leeuwarden, other than that I was by myself. It was freezing so that, very soon after my arrival, I went skating on a pond close to my new home. It was lonely, for I didn’t know a soul.
I clearly remember the first day of school: unknown children and a cheerless old building in an unfamiliar city. But the teacher had drawn, in colored chalk, a splendid Santa Claus and Black Peter on the blackboard (Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet are endearing characters from Dutch folklore, celebrated on December 5th). It must have been November or December 1942. I was eight years old and a third grader.
Why did I produce such a weird sentence? ‘The people here inquire why you don’t ask Mrs. Kramer if your mother could come and see you for a short while.’
Why didn’t Nico simply write: ‘Mommy, I miss you. Why don’t you visit me here?’
Was he putting a brave face on it? Was he hiding his loneliness, how much he longed to be with his mother?
I put the letters away and decided to go for a stroll, from our alley to the main street, and from there directly into the cliffs. After ascending for a quarter of an hour, one comes to a level stretch with a bench. From there one has a splendid view of our village, the ocean and the large island across the water, boasting the enormous volcano El Teide which dominates the entire region. Snow crowns its summit.
Clambering up the rocks proved hard. I was breathing heavily, feeling some discomfort around the heart.
Finally I reached my goal! Contented, I sat down on my bench. Nico’s image forced itself upon me, so long ago, and so far from home. He must have been putting a brave face on it, for sure, not about to admit how he really felt.
The climb, and the manifold memories, had made me sleepy. I closed my eyes, visualizing Nico in my mind. How small he was, wearing long stockings and short pants. He had an ugly pair of glasses on his nose, but otherwise made a pleasant impression.
I opened my eyes and could scarcely believe what I was seeing ... Nico was sitting next to me on the bench, looking around him in utter surprise at the palm- and orange trees, cacti … and me.
Then he asked: ‘Do you speak Dutch?’
‘That’s lucky. My name is Nico.’
‘I am Micha,’ I replied politely.
Nico blushed and turned ashen, not knowing what to make of it. He recalled his mother’s admonition: ‘You have to forget everything about your past, that you were called Micha once, that you used to be a Jewish boy.’
I reassured him: ‘There’s no reason to worry. I won’t betray you. You and I are one and the same person.’
Frowning, Nico looked at me. ‘But that’s impossible. How can it be?’
I didn’t know myself what to think of it. ‘You are Nico, I am Micha. Let’s leave it at that.’
But Nico didn’t allow himself to be put off. He hesitated and then continued: ‘So you are what I will become and I am what you were?’
I eyed him admiringly. Then a grin appeared on his face. A heavy weight seemed to drop off his shoulders. ‘So I will not be rounded up.’
‘Right you are. You, your brother, your father and your mother, all of you will survive the war.’
Nico stared into space. Then he asked: ‘Did many people die?’
‘Terribly many,’ I replied.
‘Soldiers?’ he wanted to know.
‘Indeed, soldiers, but civilians as well.’
‘Jewish people?’ he asked so softly that I could hardly understand him, scared apparently that someone else would overhear.
‘Quite a few.’
‘How ... and why?’ he inquired.
‘That’s a long story,’ I said. ‘Next time you visit me, I’ll tell you about it.’
Silently we sat on our bench.
We observed one another furtively, each making sure that the other hadn’t left.
How was it possible?
After a while I closed my eyes. When I reopened them, he was gone.
Recalling the pre-war period, I see a motley procession of individuals pass in review - relatives, friends, acquaintances, including quite a few children. Many of those I knew back then have disappeared - emigrated or picked up. Few ever returned.
Mother had two brothers - Uncle Jacques and Uncle Max.
Jacques was the oldest. Having inherited grandmother’s nervousness, he was excitable and unpredictable; a born actor, talker and salesman. Years later I accompanied him on a business trip. Every shopkeeper we visited was afraid of him, scared of being persuaded to buy things they didn’t really need. One merchant in a quiet village street somewhere in the heart of Holland, hastily closed his front door and curtains the moment he noticed Uncle Jacques, simply to avoid temptation.
Jacques was married to Stien. She was a darling, but my parents maintained a certain distance - often though not always - probably because she was a practicing Christian. Ridiculous! They had three children who were indeed raised as Christians. Sim, the oldest, was named for granddaddy Monasch. My name was Simon too, actually Simon Michael, but since there was a Simon in the extended family already, they called me ‘Micha’. And then there were cousins Corrie and Eddie.
With the exception of certain inexplicable periods of rapprochement, our relationship with Uncle Jacques’ family always remained on the cool side. I suspect that there had been arguments in the family business, differences of approach, conflicting personalities. And indeed, Jacques and daddy were rather diferent.
Father was reserved and rational, his brother-in-law highly emotional, spontaneous, and probably not always as sensible as he should be. I always liked Jacques and his kin, regretting that we maintained such limited contacts. All were extremely affectionate when we did get together. Later, I tried to make overtures, but it wasn’t easy to sustain a closer relationship against my parents’ wishes. But was it against the wishes of both my parents? In truth, mother’s attitude was ambivalent. She maintained a certain solidarity with dad, but missed the regular contact with her own relatives. This was true, in a sense, for Uncle Max’s family as well.
Max was quite a bit younger and less outspoken than Jacques; he got along a little better with dad. Immediately prior to the ourbreak of the war, he married Minnie. They had a single child, Cousin Lon. Uncle Max was a romantic figure, at least in my eyes. He imagined himself to be a great athlete, a soccer player supreme, a runner, a long-distance swimmer, God knows what, telling us colorful stories about sports achievements which, in all likelihood, reflected little more than wishful thinking. He had a pleasant singing voice, and played the violin, in everything displaying a certain bravura.
Like grandfather and Uncle Jacques, he radiated cordiality and warmth … similar to mother for that matter. This was lacking in my father and the Namenwirth clan in general. They were more introverted, reflective, reserved. At home it was often said: ‘He is a real Namenwirth,’ or, ‘She is a real Monasch.’
Micha was supposed to be a real Namenwirth. I have always considered that statement to be an injustice. In my opinion I was neither one nor the other. And why not? Why couldn’t I be both a Namenwirth and a Monasch? But not everyone in our family agreed, and probably I am more of a real Namenwirth than a real Monasch. Too bad really, for I admired my grandfather Simon Monasch and would have liked to be even more like him than I am.
We frequently had visitors. I remember excited conversations, laughter, tasty food and drink. There was the Slijper family. He was a lawyer. Until recently she had been a judge in Germany and, like so many others, had to flee the Nazis. We saw a lot of Bap and Norbert Loeser. He had come over from Germany as well. Bap was a cousin of my mother’s and probably her closest friend. Very special was Uncle Paul. He wasn’t a real uncle, more a legacy uncle. Paul and Lena Colin were a bit older than my parents. His real name was ‘Witjas’ and he came originally from the city of Antwerp. Having emigrated to Amsterdam as a diamond polisher, he had become a professional cabaret artist, member for many years of the, at the time, famous cabaret company of Jean-Louis Pisuisse. Paul sang entertaining songs, accompanying himself on the guitar. During a very long period, he remained a key figure in our family life.
There was lively conversation during meals, primarily by mother. When John and I weren’t supposed to understand what was being said, my parents switched to German or French. At times, they forgot, however, so that we heard stories about a certain friend of mother’s who, having become pregnant, had been forced to marry at an early age, only to divorce her husband soon afterwards. Amazing world!
We owned a 16 mm filmprojector and I remember watching children’s and nature films, often together with visitors I can no longer identify. It was, in any case, magnificent!
It was often said that, as a small child, I sang in the children’s choir of Jacob Hamel - at that time a celebrity – although, I must admit, I can’t recall a thing about it.
Before the war my parents conversed primarily in German. Daddy had been born in Cologne. Why, nobody seems to know, for the Namenwirth family normally lived in Antwerp, Belgium. I have no idea what brought them to the Rhineland.
During the First World War, Rabbi Namenwirth and his family resided in Gotha, in Sachsen. They were officially stateless, somehow or other convinced that it was safer to live in Germany than in occupied Belgium.
Daddy often talked about their extreme poverty. He knew German perfectly, although the extent of his formal training was rather limited. Primary school, that was all. He was a typical autodidact, who had accumulated quite a bit of knowledg through independent study and reading. Particularly interested in music, he was well-informed, enjoying concerts of classical music and his extensive record collection.
It is said that as a young man he had communist sympathies. As he grew older and became more successful, however, he moved considerably to the right. He voted for a conservative political party, always defending conservative viewpoints, which provoked fierce arguments with John and me.
Mother grew up in a more leftist, emancipating milieu. She tended to remain silent when political topics were discussed at home. For years she refused even to acknowledge for which party she had voted.
As a young person she had been sent to a boarding school in Detmold, in Germany. There she developed a passion for the theater and learned German. Later - that must have been in the twenties - she was au pair with a Jewish physician and his family in Manchester. That visit must have made a great impression on her, for she kept reminiscing about it throughout her life.
Although many things must have happened in the pre-war years that I don’t recall, I do remember Santa Claus (the same Sinterklaas I mentioned before). Naturally I believed in this holy man, but not entirely. This is why.
There was a barber in our neighborhood. In his shop he had a white cup board with little shelves containing presents. If I managed to suppress my tears, not whining too much while my hair was being cut, the barber gave me one of these treasures.
Santa Claus visited that barber year after year to discover which boys and girls had silently endured the torment. These courageous children received surprises.
One day, while my hair was being cut in one of those high chairs, and Santa Claus was sitting quietly in his own corner, a different Santa Claus appeared in the street. That Sinterklaas was coarse and mean. He entered the barber shop and began fighting with my Sinterklaas. We children didn’t know what was happening - two Santas? – and we burst out crying in a chorus.
My belief in Santa Claus was tested again when John divulged that the whole thing was a scam, deceit by grown-ups. When the doorbell rang each Sinterklaas night, said John, it was our own daddy who tossed the ginger-nuts into the hallway, not Black Peter as I had always assumed. To check this out we went under cover, and indeed, it was father pretending to be Zwarte Piet. Of course I was disappointed; but what the heck, gingerbread nuts are always tasty!
Each summer when my parents went on vacation together, they sent John and me to a kind of summer home for little children on the Veluwe, a largely undeveloped area in the center of the country. It was run by friends of the family, Zus and Pien. Generally speaking it was fun there, although I was rather young to be so far from home. At times I longed for my mom and dad. In a sense my stay at that summer camp proved to be a preparation for the period of hiding.
An event which made a lasting impression upon me was a procession that took place late at night. It was pitch dark. The strapping lads marched at the rear, carrying Chinese lanterns. They emitted horrible noises, such as are made by phantoms and witches. I was terrified, sure that I would perish.
My brother, who usually supported me, was one of the teasers this time. Never before had I been so afraid. But I didn’t complain, didn’t say anything, never told my parents.
Fortunately I wasn’t entirely on my own during this fearful episode. ‘Aunt’ Pien had a daughter named ‘Staart’, who must have been a few years older than John, and much older than me. She was a motherly figure who consoled me then, and again later. Sometimes she visited us at home, and then too, she always protected me.
Though I have had a lifelong tendency to keep silent when it would be wiser to speak out, I have often run into individuals who appeared just in time to help me. Staart was one of them.
These pre-war years were peaceful, generally speaking. All in all I felt comfortable and secure within the little world that surrounded me.
And yet the Second World War was threatening.
The Netherlands had remained neutral during World War I, and many hoped that history would repeat itself. There was no certainty, however.
Daddy had tickets in his pocket, ready to take the boat to America in case things went wrong. He too hoped, perhaps against his better judgment, that Holland would again get off scot-free. The tickets were never used.
I remember talk about National Socialists, Dutch people admiring Adolf Hitler. He was the leader of the Fascists who had come to power in Germany. They were convinced of the superiority of the German people. They wished to conquer the world, meanwhile eradicating everyone they considered inferior, which included Jews, Gypsies, and persons with a mental or physical handicap.
Long before the war erupted, the persecution of Jews had started in Germany and Austria. Jews lost their civil rights, their possessions were confiscated, they were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Some of them managed to get away and fled abroad. Everywhere in the world they sought refuge.
The Jewish families which had come to the Netherlands counted on the continued neutrality of that country, hoping to be safe there. Thus we met quite a few German and Austrian Jews. They became my parents’ friends. Their children became friends of John and mine.
Czechoslovakia and Poland had already been conquered. Then England and France declared war on Germany. It was the lull before the storm. People in our neighborhood piled bales of straw, improvised air-raid shelters and engaged in food-hoarding. They prepared themselves for the inevitable.
And despite daddy’s fervent hopes, the war did come. The German forces invaded the Netherlands.
In May 1940 Rotterdam was bombed. From Blijdorp we could see the bombardment: flames, smoke, noise, smell, chaos ...
At first, father was convinced that these were just exercises, until reality could no longer be denied.
As we stood watching the inferno, the family business was burning down. The next day the staff rushed over to our house with half burnt ledgers, detailing the firm’s income and expenditures. Day after day they worked to save as much of the bookkeeping data as possible.
After the big fire, there was no longer a business for my father and uncles to go to in Rotterdam. Since there was a branch in Amsterdam, soon after the bombardment we moved there. I don’t recall any details of the move, although the tension of that time, the uncertainty, the fright haven’t entirely disappeared. In any case, our innocent, harmonious existence in the large children’s room with the many brown bears had ended.
I am sitting at my desk, reading a few letters from Leeuwarden:
Monday, June 7th 1943
Dear mom and dad,
I’m sitting in Uncle Jan’s office. Uncle Jan is working away busily. I better not bother him, asking for ink. That’s why I am using a pencil. I actually prefer pencil to pen. It’s not more beautiful, but a lot thinner. I feel like drawing, so I am hurrying to finish this letter. What you see here is a figting knight. As he was fighting, he fell backwards.
Bye! From Nico Nanning
Aunt Mies’ parents visited us for a few days. Bye! your Nico
Leeuwarden, Monday 1943
Dear mom and dad,
The weather isn’t very nice here. Today it’s okay, but yesterday it was quite unpleasant, cold and constant rain. I therefore dressed in warm clothes. Woolen underwear, one of those blue shorts, a black-checkered shirt, a red tie and that dark-blue sweater with long sleeves, the one with that small zipper. Aunt Mies has been to that ‘ kokoer hipiek’ [concours hippique - horse-show]. I was supposed to go with her, but I had, and still have, a cold. I was therefore not allowed to go. Fortunately, I don’t have to stay in bed. I am not permitted to swim either. How do you like the portrait? I would enjoy having a few more books: ‘The Soccer Club’, ‘The Camp in the Dunes 2’, ‘The Beach Castle’, ‘The Boy from the Circus’, ‘Merry John to the City’, ‘From Merry John’s Youth’ and ‘All aboard for Mexico’. Bye! Nico N.